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Airlines and Passengers Keep Clashing Over Dress Codes

Model Iryna Ivanova is the latest traveler to clash with an airline over dress.

Airlines and passengers often clash over dress codes.
Airlines like JetBlue, Southwest, and United have removed passengers for dress code violations.
Photo: Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images

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Iryna Ivanova may be a Playboy Playmate with 4.2 million Instagram followers, but the fact that she’s a social media star didn’t matter when she recently tried to board a JetBlue flight wearing a long knit skirt that exposed her underwear. Airline officials told the model, who appeared in the 2017 DJ Khaled video “I’m the One,” that she would have to change to board the plane.

Footage of her exchange with JetBlue officials reveals how confusing it can be to know what to wear on a flight. Ivanova explained that she wore the skirt because she thought the jean cutoffs she’d packed violated the airline’s dress code, according to information she’d read online. But airline representatives assured her that the cutoffs were fine; she just couldn’t wear a knit skirt without a slip or another garment to conceal her underwear. In the end, Ivanova settled the issue by lifting up her skirt and slipping on the cut-offs underneath.

Dress code crisis averted.

But you can bet that Ivanova will not be the last person told to change before she can board a flight. Policies about what passengers can wear remain vague. All JetBlue’s contract of carriage says about dress is that persons may be removed “whose clothing is lewd, obscene, or patently offensive.” That leaves lots of room for interpretation and lots of clashes between airlines and passengers over dress.

During the past several years, women and men alike have been booted from planes for wearing short shorts, leggings, or sagging pants, and even for being visibly Muslim. In 2016, a flight attendant had a Muslim woman removed from a plane for making her uncomfortable. It was unclear what the woman had done to raise any alarm, leading Muslim groups to speculate that the woman was removed for wearing a hijab. Even rock stars such as Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong haven’t been immune to these policies: He was kicked off a Southwest flight in 2011 for refusing to pull up his pants.

The clashes over dress come at the same time airlines have landed in the news for making moves that have led to outrage, such as violently removing passengers or requiring a traveler to put a dog in an overhead bin, leading to the animal’s death. Disputes over dress give airlines yet more negative publicity.

In January, perhaps the oddest controversy involving a passenger’s dress took place. Ryan Carney Williams wore several pairs of pants, coats, and sweaters to avoid paying a checked baggage fee. He says British Airways initially gave him the green light to wear the unconventional getup but later reversed its decision. His oddball sartorial choice reportedly stemmed from the airline refusing to let Williams board with an oversize bag, so he piled on the clothes to lighten his load. Authorities later arrested him for being disruptive. When Williams tried to board an easyJet flight the following day, the captain forced him off after hearing about the commotion he’d caused previously.

If the treatment of Williams and Ivanova seems warranted, consider that in 2011, US Airways allowed a man to board wearing hardly anything. He wore a short cardigan, a crop top, underwear, and lacy stockings. That’s it. The man didn’t have on pants, shorts, or a skirt of any sort. If a man wearing lingerie as bottoms was allowed to board a plane, it’s kind of mind-boggling that women have been denied passage on planes for showing cleavage.

Even etiquette experts like Lizzie Post, granddaughter of Emily Post, take issue with how airlines enforce dress codes. “What’s appropriate is so incredibly subjective,” she told USA Today last year after United Airlines sparked controversy for barring two young passengers wearing leggings from boarding a flight. The airline eventually posted a statement to its site declaring that “your leggings are welcome.”

But the statement only came after widespread criticism that banning leggings was sexist. The girls were “United pass” travelers, or guests of the airline. Such travelers have to adhere to the airline’s dress code as representatives of UA. But even that code is vague. It simply states that they be “well-groomed, neat, clean and in good taste.”

In our casual society, dressing up for flights is no longer standard practice.
Once upon a time, passengers dressed up for flights.
Photo: Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Although which clothes airlines deem acceptable on flights all too often seems arbitrary, many people apparently don’t mind the vague dress codes. According to a 2017 Airfarewatchdog survey of 1,800 travelers, 80 percent think airlines should regulate how passengers dress. What remains unclear is the line between acceptable and inappropriate, especially in our increasingly casual society. Long gone are the days when boarding a plane was a reason to dress up, though doing so may still increase one’s chances of getting an upgrade on a flight.

If airlines want to prevent more dress code scandals, they need to spell out what is and isn’t allowed. Don’t want shorts shorter than 3 inches above the knee? Pants that sag 3 inches below the waistline? Then let passengers know before they turn up to the airport. Providing a clear dress code not only empowers customers but also stops biased airline employees from randomly applying dress codes to passengers they just don’t like.